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Friday 19 September 2014

Ultimate audience thriller runs rings around rivals

Ian Morris charts the rise of UFC, one of the most exciting sporting spectacles, and its Irish star Conor McGregor

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

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UFC fighter Conor  McGregor
UFC fighter Conor McGregor
Ultimate Fighter Ronda Rousey
Ultimate Fighter Ronda Rousey

When the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) began in the mid-Nineties, no one could have predicted that it would become one of the biggest and most exciting sporting spectacles on the planet, with bouts being sanctioned across the globe and a viewership spanning over 130 countries.

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The UFC, which is based in the US, is the largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion company in the world. But in 1993 the UFC was nothing more than an idea for a one-off, eight-man knock-out tournament, in which each fighter would bring a different style of fighting to the ring. It would welcome all comers, be they boxers, wrestlers, jiu-jitsu black belts, karate experts or even sumo wrestlers and was pitched to the public with the tagline, "There are no rules!".

This idea was met with a mixed reaction. While some were excited about a no-holds-barred competition between fighters of all persuasions, many were appalled by the brutality and violence that such an idea suggested. Big TV companies like HBO and Showtime shied away, but the Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), which was responsible for the 1992 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova, saw the potential and got on board. The event was a huge success, garnering almost 90,000 pay-per-view viewers.

As the UFC began to gather momentum in the US, it came under fire from critics who condemned the sport's violent nature – most notably Senator John McCain who, having seen a tape of an early UFC fight, referred to it as "human cockfighting" and led a campaign to have it banned. Following this, 36 states prohibited the sport.

Following pressure from its critics, the UFC shed its 'no rules' philosophy, banning unsavoury elements such as strikes to the back of the head and neck, head-butting, groin shots and fish hooking, whilst introducing weight divisions, five-minute rounds, fight cards featuring single fights as opposed to tournaments; and the mandatory wearing of gloves. It steadily evolved into a disciplined and highly skilled sport with competitors incorporating several fighting styles at once, giving rise to a true MMA fighting style.

In 2000, the Fertitta brothers, executives of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, created a new company called Zuffa LLC and purchased the UFC from SEG, installing their business partner, Dana White, as president. The change in ownership went a long way towards advancing the goals of the UFC, with vastly improved advertising and the introduction of DVD and VHS sales. To further boost awareness, the Fertitta brothers concocted an idea for a reality TV show called The Ultimate Fighter that saw members of the public compete for a UFC fighting contract. The show has now been running successfully for 18 seasons.

By 2006, the UFC's pay per view numbers had exploded with almost 800,000 viewers tuning in for UFC61 and by UFC66 there were over a million members of the public willing to pay to watch.

As coverage has increased, so too has the recognition of the fighters, many of whom have become well-known faces. Some, such as Randy Couture and Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, have even ventured into the movie business on the strength of their UFC celebrity and with films such as Kevin James's Here Comes The Boom and Warrior, it's clear that the UFC has permeated the mainstream in a big way.

In August 2011, the UFC signed a seven-year landmark deal with Fox to promote and broadcast its events, bringing it to network television for the first time, and the maiden Fox UFC event brought in an average audience of 5.7 million with a peak of over 8 million.

The women's division of the UFC has become hugely popular also since it began back in 2012 when Dana White confirmed that he had signed Olympic medalist Ronda Rousey who has gone on to become the first female UFC champion, a title she has now successfully defended.

The UFC has gained recognition in the sports community from positive coverage on ESPN as well as a popular weekly column in USA Today and has caught on internationally with big events being held in Japan, Brazil, Canada, Germany and England and MMA training facilities popping up everywhere, including Ireland.

Despite being a small island nation, Ireland has a habit of producing world-beating athletes. Enter Conor McGregor or 'The Notorious'. McGregor, who fights out of Dublin, turned pro in 2008 and over the next two years had four wins and two losses. But from the beginning of 2011, the featherweight fighter had eight consecutive wins, which brought him up the European rankings and brought him to the attention of the UFC which, in February of last year, signed McGregor to a multi-fight contract.

For his UFC debut, McGregor faced Marcus Brimage, an American MMA fighter who was undefeated in the UFC at the time. Within one minute, McGregor had knocked out Brimage. Officials declared it the 'Knockout of the Night'. For his second bout, McGregor faced Max Holloway. He won unanimously. After the fight, McGregor was limping and said something had popped in his knee in the second round. A trip to hospital revealed that McGregor had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and would require surgery. McGregor, in not only continuing to fight but also in winning with such an injury, shows that he is no pretender.

On July 19, the UFC will be coming to the O2 in Dublin and despite whispers that his knee will keep him from competing, McGregor says, "July 19 gives me plenty of time ... fighting on a UFC card in Dublin is a dream come true and I don't give a s*** who they put in front of me, I will run through anyone".

God help the poor soul who tries to stand in his way.

Sunday Independent

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